Corrected: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Conen Morgan, a spokesman for Bob Etheridge.
In a year when a dozen states have gubernatorial elections, K-12 education is playing a variety of roles in the individual campaigns, in ways that sometimes seem to defy easy political categories.
Incumbent and aspiring governors could gain momentum from the national appetite for more focus on education in general. A swing-state survey released by the College Board earlier this month—which included respondents from states with incumbent governors on the hot seat, North Carolina and Wisconsin—showed 67 percent of voters said education was extremely important to them in the White House and congressional elections.
“It’s no longer acceptable to just have platitudes about how you want to be the education governor,” said Marc Magee, the president of 50CAN, a nonprofit group advocating charter school funding and new teacher-evaluation systems through its state chapters.
Governors are also facing more scrutiny on education, even as competitive federal grants and waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act offer them more resources or autonomy, argued Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University in Madison, N.J.
“It’s clear that the pressure on states to produce better outcomes is, if anything, actually increasing,” Mr. McGuinn said.
Imitation was not particularly flattering for Washington state GOP governatorial candidate Rob McKenna, who accused Democratic candidate Jay Inslee of swiping his education policy initiatives early this month.
Both candidates, for example, want to create teacher mentor positions, with mentors potentially earning extra cash. Mr. Inslee, who until recently represented the state’s 1st District in Congress, wants schools to have a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, while Mr. McKenna, the state attorney general, wants the dropout rate to be less than 10 percent by 2025.
Mr. McKenna, meanwhile, has lamented the decline of education spending as a share of the state budget.
To say the two candidates’ education proposals are very similar would be going too far, said Chris Korsmo, the chief executive officer of the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit advocacy group in the state. But she is pleased to see Mr. McKenna make education a priority in his campaign, and then see Mr. Inslee hustle to catch up.
The background to the brisk education debate is a Jan. 5 opinion from the state Supreme Court that said Washington had been underfunding education by the standards of the state constitution.
“From an education advocate’s perspective, this is great. We’re talking about changing the way that we do things here. And we have been very slow to change here,” Ms. Korsmo said.
Utah Public-Lands Drama
Arguably the most eye-catching law passed in Utah this year represents something of a political double-play for Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who is facing several GOP challengers for his seat. The state’s Republicans will nominate a gubernatorial candidate on April 21.
The Transfer of Public Lands Act passed by state lawmakers this year requires the federal government to transfer millions of acres of land in the state to Utah’s control by Dec. 31, 2014. The law states that 5 percent of net proceeds from those lands be put into the State School Fund.
“It is a way to say, ‘If we could just do this, then we could fund education without raising taxes.’ It’s a perfect issue in a way,” said Matthew Burbank, an associate political science professor at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City.
The state legislature’s legal counsel said the bill had “a high probability of being declared unconstitutional.” But when Mr. Herbert signed the bill in March, he said, “Federal control hampers our ability to adequately fund our public education system.”
In addition to providing conservative bona fides for Mr. Herbert, the public-lands fight is linked to his education initiatives.
The governor’s Education Excellence Commission’s 2010 report stressed that while Utah was proud of its efficiency in terms of education expenditures, “holding per-pupil funding at current levels is the first and highest priority of the state.” (Adding urgency is that Utah consistently has the highest birthrate of any U.S. state.)
“I think the philosophy about education is shifting in Utah from more of a dialogue about being efficient ... to a philosophy that’s more strategic and looking at education as an investment,” said Mark Bouchard, the chairman of Prosperity 2020, a coalition of Utah business and education leaders pushing for two-thirds of state residents to have a postsecondary certificate or bachelor’s degree in eight years.
Indiana Double Feature
Indiana faces an interesting set of contests as candidates seek to fill Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels’ seat in 2012. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, an advocate for charter schools and voucher programs and Mr. Daniels’ policy co-pilot, is running again as the Republican candidate for superintendent.
In his campaign, Mr. Bennett may end up focusing on initiatives with broader appeal, such as the $80 million boost in state funding next year for full-day kindergarten, said Terry Spradlin, the director for education policy at Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy in Bloomington, Ind.
Still, the likely GOP nominee for governor, U.S. Rep Mike Pence, who is unopposed in the May 8 primary, could simply defer to Mr. Bennett on education policy, Mr. Spradlin suggested.
“They will have a common agenda. I think they will see eye to eye,” he said.
Both Mr. Pence, who is expected to face Democrat John Gregg for the governor’s seat in the general election, and Mr. Bennett will be looking to build on the education record that Mr. Daniels helped to create. If Mr. Pence and Mr. Bennett win, in 2013 they could examine the share of state dollars going to classrooms and whether the timeline for state takeover of failing schools should be shortened.
Praise for Mr. Daniels and Mr. Bennett’s initiatives is not uniform. For example, in a November poll conducted by the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., only 34 percent of adult state residents approved of expanding school vouchers—a key initiative from Mr. Bennett and Mr. Daniels—with 37 opposed and 28 percent with no opinion yet.
At the same time, 75 percent of respondents with children in public schools were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with schools.
“I don’t see an ad that says, ‘The failed education policies of Mitch Daniels,’ ” said Andrew Downs, the director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue decided not to run again after a single term. But she did set off the major education policy debate when she decided to push for a 0.75 percent increase in the sales tax, in order to boost funding for education. Republicans have balked.
“They have not offered any reform, any method to fix the system,” Rob Lockwood, a spokesman for the state’s Republican Party, said of Democrats.
The primary for both parties is May 8.
Although the GOP front-runner, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, has come out against the tax increase, he has tried instead to focus on initiatives, such as creating a two-tier K-12 system with “college ready” and “career ready” diplomas and accelerating charter school expansion.
However, Democratic candidates running in the primary who are trying to replace Gov. Perdue are supporting the tax increase, arguing that schools need renewed financial support. The National Education Association ranked the state 42nd in the nation in per-pupil spending and said spending per pupil dropped by $198 over the past two school years.
Conen Morgan, a spokesman for one Democratic candidate, Bob Etheridge, a former congressman and North Carolina state schools superintendent, said Mr. Etheridge wouldn’t depart greatly from Ms. Perdue’s education policies and supported the state’s Race to the Top grant of $400 million.
Mr. Morgan argued that the GOP is simply tossing out policy ideas without a track record or ways to pay for them, and added, “The two-tiered approach would actually bring about second-class citizens within the state.”
Wisconsin Battle Royale
Wisconsin’s governor is also the focus of a heated battle this year—in his case a recall vote. Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, faces that vote June 5 as a result of the fight he picked last year over the collective bargaining rights of teachers and other public employees.
Even amid the fierce recall campaign, Mr. Walker has made some headway on key education policy issues, working with schools Superintendent Tony Evers and others, said Wisconsin PTA President Kim Henderson said Mr. Walker. As an example, she cited the Read to Lead program, which requires early literacy screening and places additional weight on reading in teacher evaluations.
“I think he’s making a major effort to work with the major education leaders and stakeholders,” Ms. Henderson said.
But none of that has calmed the partisan storm before the recall, said Dan Rossmiller, the chief lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
“This started as a union effort. But I think it’s enveloped the whole state, and I don’t think ... voters will be able to sit this one out,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of Education Week